Any little sound will do it. A dog barking down the street. A rabbit bumping against the trailer. An armadillo rooting for grub worms. Where kitchen workers put a razor blade in his coffee cup. Once, he was ambushed by two men who hit him in the head with a two-by-four, busting his eardrum and temporarily blinding him. Another time, in the cafeteria, a guy sneaked up and choked him from behind.
He gets out of bed and heads to the bathroom, where he washes his face and looks in the mirror. He brushes his teeth, the front ones prosthetic, and straightens to his full five foot eleven inches. He gazes at the tattoos covering his broad chest and upper arms, a swirling mural of demons, skulls, and angry faces. He has to be careful every minute of the day. He stares into his eyes, which are inviting, almost kind. What kind of man are you? Greg goes to the kitchen. He puts on a pot of coffee, turns on the computer, reads the news.
He makes breakfast, gets dressed. He kisses them both goodbye, then walks outside, into the glare of bright floodlights in the yard. The family lives in a double-wide trailer on a dead-end street just outside tiny Ferris, about twenty miles southeast of Dallas.
He walks down the gravel driveway. A rooster crows in the distance. He climbs into his truck and sets out for Midlothian, about 25 miles west, to do work for a friend who installs wood flooring. Driving the unlit country roads, his mind takes off too, down a dozen different rabbit holes, dark, twisted places from his past.
Inevitably, he finds himself reliving that terrible day almost twenty years ago. That day at the goddamn pool party. He goes over every detail: The boy was only 6. He was only Should have known better. His ears still burn when he thinks about it—and he thinks about it all the time. He knows what people say. Greg sucks in his breath, tightens his grip on the wheel. His whole life, he has fought people—hurt them deeply, been unbelievably reckless. Passing the homes of normal citizens who are just waking to start their normal days, he thinks of the words tattooed across his chest, in dark-blue ink, above the congregation of demons—words he adopted in prison and has lived his whole life.
He can feel them under his shirt, can hear them in his mind. He remembers the heat of the day and the cool of the water. It was a Sunday afternoon, June 9, Leaving Morgan with a babysitter, the two caught a ride with another couple, a pair of high school friends: Luke, one of four children at the party, splashed at one end of the pool, and among the adults, a volleyball game broke out. Greg, his mind and body fuzzy from the night before, felt reinvigorated by the water.
He swatted the ball and nursed a beer. Then Luke announced he needed to go to the bathroom. The boy had diarrhea.
Donna, who had to make a phone call, led the way. Greg decided to follow. Finding some hot dogs, he ate one cold, then spotted a tray with several more that Donna had cooked in her oven. He grabbed a couple, began eating one, and wandered over to the bathroom, where John was already helping Luke wipe himself. What had come over him? Maybe he was a little buzzed, acting stupid. Maybe he was just a screwed-up person. The images still rush back to him like scenes from a bad movie.
The boy in the bathroom. The remaining hot dog in his hand. Brenda screaming at him by the pool. The words in the police report, which spelled it all out with sickening clarity: It had been a blur after that. Joellene and his mother put up money for his bail and hired a lawyer, who, convinced a jury would find him guilty and give him life, recommended a bench trial.
It was all a mistake, Greg tried to say; he just needed a chance to tell his story. But three months later, he found himself in the same courtroom with Brenda as she described the party to Judge Thomas Thorpe, a year-old devout Catholic: Wide-eyed, the boy stared at his grandmother in the courtroom when asked about the hot dog, looking at her for comfort.
Greg was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. His depravity was only confirmed by his history: Greg, it was revealed during trial, was already on probation for burglary, assault, and selling speed. He needed to go away for a long time.
He stood as the judge read his sentence: Pedophile, the inmates snarled at him. He was sucker-punched in the dayroom. Jumped in his cell, in the cafeteria, in the shower. A sex offender, more than a killer even, deserved a special place in hell—for robbing children of their innocence, for leaving scars that never healed. But no one needed to tell Greg that.
Greg had always invited trouble. Even as a toddler, he was headstrong. Greg learned early not to complain. The family lived in a succession of rough-and-tumble neighborhoods and trailer parks in Irving. Greg, the middle child—with an older sister, Shannon, and a younger brother, Kevin—was a fast, athletic kid. He loved to run. He loved to fight too. His father encouraged it; so did his grandfather Papaw, who had boxed in the Army, and his uncle Jeffrey, who had been a kickboxer.
They hung a punching bag from a tree so he could practice and made him slug it out with neighborhood kids. He was not going to be a sissy. He was sweet and knew his manners, opening doors, carrying books, picking a flower for a date while stopped at a red light. He was smart too, playing chess for hours with his uncle Jackie when the man lay paralyzed in a hospital bed after a motorcycle wreck.
He loved that reckless feeling of going too far. In between the pranks and the chivalry, he began acting deranged, picking fights with grown men, jumping from the hood of a speeding car onto an eighteen-wheeler, riding his bike off the roof of a two-story apartment building into a pool. His high school buddies could be unruly too—they all broke curfews, drank, fought—but Greg seemed to harbor a death wish. He hated his dad—for being so hard on him, for working all the time, for never coming to his football games.
They alone seemed to understand him, had seen enough hard living during their time to not be frightened by the turmoil inside him. Especially Granny, who showed him how to cook on her old cast-iron stove and reminded him that he could do whatever he put his mind to; to prove her right, he roofed their house all on his own.
That year he was accused of stealing a purse and, a few months later, busted for dealing meth. He was arrested for assault the next year when he took a bottle to the head of a guy who was picking on his brother. That was the breaking point. His long-suffering mother, Sheila, confronted him, desperate. The bus was gone. He could find the camp by heading down the main road. But the man persisted. And so Greg had, terrified.
And then— And then. Greg, feeling nine years old all over again, telling his mother what he should have told her half a lifetime ago, back when she could have protected him, when someone should have protected him, explained how the man had raped him right there in the car. When the boy defecated on himself, the man made him shower, threw him back in the car, drove near the beach, and stopped.
It was three in the morning.